Two good articles in today’s NY Times focus on the increasingly timely topic of economic inequality. One article covers the findings of a team of economists that economic inequality in the United States has burgeoned over the course of the past 35 years. The American economy more than doubled in size during this period, but those in the lower half of the income distribution saw practically zero growth in income. Nearly 70% of the growth has accrued to the wealthiest 10%. In 1980, the average person in the top one per cent received about 27 times more than the average person in the bottom half. 35 years later, the average one-percenter was getting 81 times as much as a lower halfer. (Do you think that this could have anything to do with the finding by a team of political scientists that people in the lower half of the income distribution exert no independent influence—that is, zero—on what happens in Washington?)
The second article puts the recent trends in historic perspective. The author, the Times’ Eduardo Porter, focuses on a book by historian Walter Scheidel whose main finding is that increasing inequality has been pretty much the story of the whole history of the world, a story that has been interrupted from time to time only by cataclysmic events like wars and plagues. The inevitable inference from this vast historic tableau is that, in the absence of any prospective cataclysms, the current trend toward increasing inequality is likely to continue. Porter raises the possibility of political policy fixes to this trend, like more progressive taxation, higher minimum wages, or even a universal basic income, but Scheidel is negative:
Serious consideration of the means required to mobilize political majorities for implementing any [such measures] is conspicuous by its absence….The world of the future is likely to be quite stable and have very high inequality.”
Porter voices no objection to this conclusion of practically inevitable increasing inequality: “Maybe we should just learn to stop worrying and love it.”
Scheidel and Porter seem strikingly oblivious to what has been happening in American politics lately. The prohibitive odds-on favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination was almost upset in her quest by an outsider, a self-declared socialist who put the fight against inequality at the center of his campaign. The improbable winner of the Republican nomination and the election also claimed the mantle of warrior for the downtrodden working class against self-serving elites and special interests. These two remarkable developments taken together strongly suggest that somewhere in the jumble of American politics there is indeed a majority supportive of decisive action for some leveling of the economic playing field. What happens when the fraudulence of the Great Populist in the White House becomes evident? I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of mobilizing that majority for real change. Maybe the future of inequality isn’t quite as secure as Scheidel and Porter think.